The growing abyss that is world corruption

Brian Stewart on a world where corruption has become endemic and state mafias are a growth industry.

There's one problem area in the world today that must be stated as bluntly as possible and faced as honestly as we can — that's the collapse of trust in governments around the globe because of an almost unprecedented rise in corruption.

Every year, according to those who track these things, the world falls further into widespread corruption to the point where "at no time has there been less trust in elected representatives," the International Anti-Corruption Conference declared last month.

We all know severe corruption exists in large parts of the world. But most of us had hoped that the pressure for transparency and reform by groups like the UN and the World Bank would start getting a grip on this plague.

A telecom employee in New Delhi takes part in a protest in December 2010 against a $39-billion corruption and licensing scandal that has rocked India in recent weeks. (Parivartan Sharma/Reuters)

Economic summits, like the G20 in Toronto last summer, always vow to attack the problem with vigour.

But that simply isn't happening effectively enough. We are not advancing against world corruption. According to the numbers, in fact, we're in a dismal retreat.

As the respected group Transparency International reported recently, of 178 countries and territories surveyed, nearly three quarters scored below five on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 10 (very clean).

This means that even Canada along with other relatively clean and transparent countries cannot be immune from the consequences.

Anti-corruption experts are unanimous in warning that the existing state of severe corruption in dozens of nation states means we will all face a future of more instability, violence, poverty and massive environmental failure.

Bribery on the rise

As things stand, six out of 10 people around the world feel corruption has increased over the past three years, says  Transparency International, which went on to note that one in four reported paying bribes in the last year.

"Most worrying is the fact that bribes to the police have almost doubled since 2006, and more people report paying bribes to the judiciary than did so five years ago," the report said.

Something very ominous is clearly happening here as even the least corrupt areas appear to show less faith in the honesty of government and its institutions.

A remarkable 73 per cent of Europeans and 67 per cent of North Americans think corruption has increased over the last three years, even in their countries. It's in the air.

Some of this can be easily attributed to the fallout from the financial crisis of the past few years. But the worsened economy explains only part of the erosion; the general disdain for politics and bureaucrats points to a broader malaise.

No one is immune

In Canada's case, we still score near the top of the world's least corrupt nations. But we are not totally pristine, as we're reminded by recurring scandals at all levels of government and in the flourishing existence of organized crime, which feeds on corruption.

Accountability and transparency

The top 20 least-corrupt nations

  1. Denmark
  2. New Zealand
  3. Singapore
  4. Finland
  5. Sweden
  6. Canada
  7. Netherlands
  8. Australia
  9. Switzerland
  10. Norway
  11. Iceland
  12. Luxembourg
  13. Hong Kong
  14. Ireland
  15. Austria
  16. Germany
  17. Barbados
  18. Japan
  19. Qatar
  20. United Kingdom

Source: Transparency International

In our global affairs, moreover, we're inevitably enmeshed in the muck.

Our exporters face constant pressures to "bribe or be gone." Diplomats deal with regimes up to their teeth in kleptomania and human rights abuses; and even our aid groups are often forced into pacts with corrupt local officials and thug police simply to survive.

The reality can be often grotesque. Canadians are rightfully outraged that our soldiers have died helping defend one of the most corrupt nations on Earth. Afghan officials, on the other hand, concede massive corruption but insist much of it is the result of foreign contractors fighting for billions of dollars in development and private security contracts.

Then there is the fact that Afghanistan's neighbour, Pakistan, with its stockpile of nuclear weapons, seems barely able to keep a lid on public security due in large part to endemic state corruption.

The old Cold War fear of a super-power Armageddon has been replaced by concerns that organized crime will simply steal loosely guarded warheads and smuggle them to rogue states or terrorists groups.

In the recent WikiLeaks documents, U.S. diplomats portrayed Russia, with its roughly 12,000 nuclear warheads, "as a virtual mafia state" headed by a "corrupt autocracy."

The most chilling aspect of this is that few Western diplomats or business interests found the assessment surprising.

As the Economist magazine recently noted in a special on Russia, power is now in the hands of a notably vicious crowd of "bureaucrat-entrepreneurs" who work closely with security services and the police "because they have the ultimate competitive advantage: a licence for violence."

'State capture'

At the recent anti-corruption conference in Thailand, participants argued that more investigative journalism and volunteer groups are the best way to expose state abuses. But reprisals against those few courageous enough to investigate take an appalling toll every year.

Internationally, 44 journalists were murdered this past year as they were pursuing stories on human rights and corruption, while another 145 are currently in prison. No figures are kept on the number beaten and threatened, almost always with impunity.

As for the human cost of widespread corruption, these can hardly be exaggerated as it's the poorest, in their billions, who suffer the most.

"All too often," the anti-corruption conference reported, "resource wealth ends up benefiting a country's elites while ordinary citizens continue to suffer the effects of extreme poverty."

There is even a new term used by economists for this process in which a nation is looted of its wealth essentially by state-empowered gangsters — "state capture."

And with so many nations now caught up in this process, the international community has become paralyzed by obvious conflicts of interests.

Ten years ago, the UN established its Convention against Corruption, but not surprisingly many countries have yet to ratify it, and the treaty is widely ignored.

The World Bank and groups like Transparency International regularly raise the alarm. Yet endemic corruption continues to feed wars, instability, crime, rape of the land, and just about everything that's nasty in our world.

And if this causes most of us to lose faith in our governments and in the hope of reform, then we really are going to be dragged into a far darker and more dangerous future.